POLITICS + GOVERNMENT

Trump largely ignores new federal charges at major Iowa GOP gathering

Jul 29, 2023, 12:00 PM | Updated: 12:03 pm

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Iowa GOP's Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines on July 28. Pho...

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Iowa GOP's Lincoln Dinner in Des Moines on July 28. Photo credit: Scott Morgan/Reuters

(CNN) — Former President Donald Trump charged ahead with his bid for the 2024 GOP nomination Friday at a major Republican event in Iowa, largely ignoring the new charges he faces in the federal classified documents probe.

“If I weren’t running, I would have nobody coming after me. Or if I was losing by a lot, I would have nobody coming after me,” Trump said in Des Moines at the Iowa GOP’s Lincoln Dinner, a high-profile gathering of party officials, donors and supporters in the state set to kick off the 2024 nominating process in January.

It was Trump’s only indirect reference to the recent news that the former president, an aide and a Mar-a-Lago worker face expanded charges in the special counsel investigation into Trump’s possession of classified documents. Those updated charges are the beginning of a legal process that will play out at the same time as next year’s presidential race.

Trump used his speech – which was limited to 10 minutes, a time restraint also faced by the 12 other GOP presidential candidates who spoke at the dinner – to highlight a litany of his administration’s accomplishments, particularly those with Iowa connections. He pointed to tariffs on Chinese goods and sales of agricultural products to China, his support for ethanol and the replacement of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

He also took credit for Iowa remaining the first state to vote in the GOP presidential nominating process – a status state Republicans maintained even as Democrats made changes to their primary calendar.

“Without me, you would not be first in the nation right now,” Trump said.

He pointed to selectively chosen unnamed polls that he said showed him defeating President Joe Biden in 2024 and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis losing to Biden.

“I wouldn’t take a chance on that one,” Trump said of his top-polling GOP rival.

Trump, like all other candidates at the dinner, walked out to the Brooks & Dunn song “Only in America.” As he took the stage, the lyrics that played were: “One kid dreams of fame and fortune. One kid helps pay the rent. One could end up going to prison. One just might be president.”

The former president appeared uncomfortable at times Friday under the time-constrained format and without a teleprompter. He looked down at his notes for much of his speech and at one point tried to explain why he was speeding through his remarks.

“I’m going quickly because we’re given … 10 quick minutes, so I’m gonna go quickly, but we did a lot of things. It’s hard to do it that quickly,” he told the crowd.

Earlier Friday, Trump again did not directly address the new charges brought against him during brief remarks at his Iowa campaign headquarters, instead repeating his past claims that the Department of Justice had been “weaponized.”

Some rivals speak out

Some of his rivals did take direct aim at Trump, the front-runner to win the GOP nomination for the third consecutive presidential election, in their remarks Friday night in Iowa.

Will Hurd, the former Texas congressman and noted Trump critic, was jeered and shouted down as he unleashed the strongest attack on the former president of any candidate at the dinner.

“Donald Trump is not running for president to make America great again. Donald Trump is not running for president to represent the people who voted for him in 2016 and 2020. Donald Trump is running to stay out of prison,” Hurd said, as crowd members erupted in boos.

He blamed the former president for the GOP’s electoral losses in 2018, 2020 and 2022, and said Trump alienated key constituencies that the party needs to win elections: college-educated suburban women; Black and brown communities; and people age 35 and under.

“The truth is hard,” Hurd said, leaning into the blowback. “But if we elect Donald Trump, we are willingly giving Joe Biden four more years in the White House, and America can’t handle that.”

Former Vice President Mike Pence implicitly urged Republicans to leave behind Trump, his ex-ticket mate. Pence pitched himself as a stronger ideological ally as he told the crowd it was time for “new Republican leadership” with a “proven commitment to the conservative agenda.”

“We must resist the politics of personality and the siren song of populism, unmoored to conservative values, because different times calls for different leadership,” Pence said.

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who for months has urged the GOP to move on from Trump, also called on Iowa Republicans to steer the party away from the former president in January’s caucuses.

“As it stands right now, you will be voting in Iowa while multiple criminal cases are pending against former President Trump. Iowa has an opportunity to say, we as a party, we need a new direction for America and for the GOP,” he said. “We are a party of individual responsibility, accountability and support for the rule of law – we must not abandon that.”

Attacks on Biden

Several 2024 GOP hopefuls used the dinner to attack Biden, frequently in personal terms.

Hutchinson and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley both cracked jokes about the number of grandchildren Biden has – a reference to presidential son Hunter Biden’s child with an Arkansas woman. The jokes came just hours after the president publicly acknowledged his seventh grandchild, 4-year-old Navy, for the first time.

Haley said politicians over age 75 should be required to pass “mental competency tests” that include questions such as “How many grandchildren do you have?”

“What? I don’t know what you all are laughing at,” she said wryly. Her remark also came two days after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the 81-year-old Kentucky Republican, froze for 30 seconds during a news conference on Capitol Hill and was escorted away by his colleagues from the microphone. An aide said later he was feeling light-headed.

DeSantis told the crowd there would be “no cocaine in my White House” and noted that his son is 5 years old and therefore won’t be “lining his pockets” with foreign governments’ money – another clear shot at Biden’s son.

Appeals to donors

Some candidates whose campaigns have yet to gain traction with grassroots donors also used the dinner to plead for contributions as they seek to hit the Republican National Committee’s threshold of 40,000 unique contributors to qualify for the first presidential debate next month.

“The key to being in the debate in in your pocket tonight,” Hutchinson said.

Perry Johnson, the long-shot Michigan businessman, said anyone who donates even $1 to his campaign would get a ticket to a concert by country duo Big & Rich.

Larry Elder, the California talk radio host and former gubernatorial nominee, also asked for donations, pledging to raise at the debate topics such as the “epidemic of fatherlessness,” school choice, combating criticism of the United States as systemically racist, and limiting federal spending. He pointed out that he is the only member of his family who did not serve in the military.

“If I can put these issues front and center,” he said, “then I will feel that I have given back to my country.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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Trump largely ignores new federal charges at major Iowa GOP gathering